Crab soup

Our view: Restrictions on harvests are only a first step

April 13, 2008

In the Chesapeake region, the blue crab is king. But uneasy rests the crown. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is predicting that harvests of female crabs will need to be reduced 20 percent to 40 percent to ensure a sufficient spawning population.

The science behind the proposal is clear enough: Surveys show blue crab stocks are down and in danger of falling much lower. Crabs have been at risk for much of the decade despite conservation efforts.

If further action is not taken, the species could go the way of once-abundant oysters or yellow perch.

This is not to blame only the commercial crabbers or even the average chicken-necker who dangles his bait from the dock in hopes of catching a dozen jimmies on the weekend.

Below-average recruitment, the decline of eel grass beds in the lower bay that serve as nurseries for juveniles, the tons of nitrogen and phosphorus that continue to choke the Chesapeake and its tributaries all have played a role.

Many watermen aren't happy with the options DNR officials are considering. These serious new restrictions may put some out of business, and the impact on their rural communities could be profound.

But if crabs aren't given an opportunity to recover, not just one livelihood will be lost. It would also spell the demise of a critical asset for not only Maryland's economy but its very identity.

Whatever conservation steps are taken, it's vital that Maryland and Virginia (and the bistate commission that regulates the Potomac River) launch a coordinated effort. It does little good to spare female crabs here only to see them harvested later in Virginia.

Ultimately, blue crabs need more than a short-term fix. As long as the fishery is regulated in such a way that watermen have a strong incentive to take the most they can whenever they can, the danger of overfishing will remain.

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